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Remembering Canadian soldiers from abroad

Spending Remembrance Day at a war memorial in France changed how I remember the fallen

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Image Credits: Tamara Connor

“To the valour of their countrymen in the great war and in memory of their sixty thousand dead this monument is raised by the people of Canada.”

That is what I read while standing on the plain green fields of Vimy Ridge in the north of France, knees shaking from the 2C weather, and teary-eyed from one of the most moving memorials I have ever seen.

When you think of spending a semester abroad, you typically think of drinking and partying — and while there was some of that, there were also some moments that moved me in ways I hadn’t anticipated.

When I got off the train in the small town of Lens, I honestly didn’t expect much. Small-town France has a reputation of being a little rough around the edges. I spent the night in an apartment, and in the morning, I pinned a poppy to my chest and started my trek towards the Vimy Ridge Memorial.

Getting out of the car, I was greeted by two very tall limestone pylons. I was quiet — everyone in my group was. The memorial was breathtaking. We walked up to it, slowly, taking it in from every angle. There were 20 or so statues, all expressing something so different and powerful, you couldn’t help but cry, smile, and pray as you walked around the monument.

Sacrifice, mourning, innocence, strength, courage, loss. The statues told it all.

When it came time for the ceremony, my friends and I gathered in a crowd of maybe 100 on the fields below the memorial. Looking up, we heard “Scotland the Brave” begin, and saw some of the bagpipers follow. Immediately, tears rolled down my cheeks. I looked around, and thought to myself about how many people died where I was standing so that I could have the life I do now.

The ceremony continued, the colours were marched in, speeches were given, and anthems were sung. All the while, I was fighting not to collapse right then and there.

Once the ceremony had ended, we walked up the side of the ridge to the museum and trenches. We stood in front of fields still warped from the war. Grazing on the fields at the museum were sheep, which I found a little strange. I asked why they had sheep out there, and apparently, in most parts of northern France, the fields still have active shells hidden under a layer of grass, so sending lawn mowers isn’t an option. The rolly hills plagued with bumps and humps were shocking, and the perfect reminder of what man can do to nature when we fight one another.

I walked through the restored and preserved trenches in complete silence. There was a cemetery on the other side of the memorial and we walked over to find a sea of white crosses. Again, all in silence.

Spending Remembrance Day at Vimy Ridge is an experience I will not soon forget. To stand on the fields where so many lost their lives is so different from standing in your school gym or having a moment of silence while at work. I had no idea how powerful Remembrance Day could be until seeing firsthand a community that was freed by Canadians. If you ever get the opportunity to visit a Canadian war memorial abroad, take it.

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